Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon
Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon
Reviewed by Richard Dilworth Rust
Hugh W. Pinnock, a recently deceased member of the First Quorum of the Seventy
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spent many years doing what
the title of his book indicates: finding biblical Hebrew and other ancient literary
forms in the Book of Mormon. The result is a three-part compendium of forms and
examples: forms of repetition, forms of parallelism, and other forms.
Although Elder Pinnock refers to there being “at least 240 different defined
Hebrew writing forms . . . identifiable in the Old Testament” (p. 50), in
his treatment of Hebraic forms in the Book of Mormon he limits himself to twenty-six—seven
forms of repetition, thirteen of parallelism, and six miscellaneous forms: anthropopatheia
(God and man with similar attributes), numerical parallelism, exergasia (working
through for heightened understanding), ellipsis (a leaving out), eleutheria (bold
speech), and eironeia (irony: an opposite expression). Forms of repetition include
anaphora (repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive
clauses or sentences), epibole (irregular repetition), epistrophe (similar sentence
or clause endings), and amoebaeon (like paragraph endings). A striking example
of anaphora is Jacob’s repeated “Wo unto” found in 2 Nephi 9:31-38.
Forms of parallelism make up the main part of the book. These include word pairs,
synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism (two things placed together to add
strength), phrases repeated in order, phrases opposing each other, and chiasmus
(inverse repetition). A simple but effective example of antithetical chiasmus
A I give not
B because I have not,
B but if I had
A I would give. (Mosiah 4:24) (p. 94)
Typically, Pinnock provides examples from the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon—as with word pairs such as these:
A before the fierce anger of the Lord
B come upon you,
A before the day of the Lord’s anger
B come upon you. (Zephaniah 2:2)
A I will visit them
B in my anger,
B yea, in my fierce anger
A will I visit them. (Mosiah 12:1) (pp. 52, 179)
A major point of the book is set forth in the preface: “Joseph Smith could
not have been aware when he translated the Book of Mormon that it was full of
chiasms and Hebraisms” (p. x). These various ancient forms argue that the
Book of Mormon “is an ancient Hebrew book that was translated, but not written,
by Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century” (p. x). Later, the argument becomes
deductive, as with this reference to the form of inverse repetition: “Because
the Book of Mormon is a Hebrew-influenced text like the Bible, it naturally contains
this form in abundance” (p. 93). While the preponderance of Hebraic forms
in the Book of Mormon gives credence to Pinnock’s assertions, I find especially
touching his anecdote about a Jewish friend to whom he showed chiasmus in the
Book of Mormon. She told her rabbi, who responded, “Then, my dear, you have
found one of God’s books because chiasmus is the language of God”
Writing in a friendly, accessible style, Pinnock relies heavily on Donald W. Parry’s
Book of Mormon Text Reformatted according to Parallelistic Patterns (Provo, Utah:
FARMS, 1992) and E. W. Bullinger’s Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1968 [first published in 1898]). He relies as
well upon ideas from Robert Alter, Wilfred G. E. Watson, John W. Welch, and others.
Pinnock says in his first citation of Parry: “I am deeply indebted to Donald
Parry” (p. 47 n. 1). Indeed, he is quite derivative of Parry, following
a similar order of forms and using many of the same examples.
Although not entirely original, Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary
Forms in the Book of Mormon is refreshingly clear. Pinnock is obviously a teacher:
he is very concerned with communicating clearly. His examples also have graphics
as visual aids—for example, line drawings of up staircases and down staircases
in connection with anabasis (from the Greek meaning “to go or walk up”)
and catabasis (from the Greek meaning “going down”). (These forms
are repeated, with terms and examples, in the “Glossary and Pronunciation
Guide” at the end of the book. There, typically, the author has paired examples
from the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon.)
The book has its limitations, though. The scriptural examples are all taken out
of context, so the emphasis is on the forms themselves much more than on the effectiveness
and purposes of these forms as part of a larger whole. In that regard, I prefer
Parry’s Book of Mormon Text Reformatted according to Parallelistic Patterns.
Simply looking at one example after another is sort of like reading sequentially
a book of quotations. Too, despite Pinnock’s pronunciation guide, I find
myself losing interest in trying to remember the names of the rhetorical terms.
(For me, it is simpler to think of “staircase parallelism” than “anabasis.”)
Still, the book provides a handy and clear guide to some major literary forms
found in the Book of Mormon.
I like also what the book does not provide but what it points to. In his epilogue,
Pinnock says, “We have merely scratched the surface of a discipline that
can fascinate, inspire, and alter your thinking about the sophisticated writing
abilities of the prophets who lived from 4000 BC to AD 400″ (p. 157).
Indeed. If it does nothing else, Pinnock’s book could stimulate further
study of the literary aspects of the Book of Mormon.
Despite all the books and articles on the Bible as literature, Robert Alter finds
that “the telling [in the Hebrew Bible] has a shapeliness whose subtleties
we are only beginning to understand, and it was undertaken by writers with the
most brilliant gifts for intimating character, defining scenes, fashioning dialogue,
elaborating motifs, [and] balancing near and distant episodes.”1 David A.
Dorsey avers that “there is still no comprehensive study of literary structure
in the Hebrew Bible and few adequate analyses of the structures of individual
Old Testament books. The field of research is still in its infancy.”2 If
this is true of study of the Bible, then what about the Book of Mormon? Writing
about scriptural studies generally, but surely thinking as well about the Book
of Mormon, Parry says: “Much work remains to be done in the field of scriptural
poetics, including the study of parallelistic and repetitious forms.”3 Appropriately,
then, Pinnock predicts that “the study of this art form and writing system
will increase in popularity as the years unfold. . . . It is possible that all
we now know about how the ancients wrote and the forms they used is just a microscopic
percentage of what there is yet to learn” (p. 157).
As far as I am aware, the only full-length treatments of the literary aspects
of the Book of Mormon are my book, Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony
of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1997), and Mark
D. Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt
Lake City: Signature Books, 1999). As both Thomas and I realize, a great deal
more can be done with this scripture that in some ways appears simple yet is extremely
Pinnock points to a fruitful area in which there is much yet to learn: He recognizes
that “many of the Hebrew writing forms discussed in this book were designed
by ancient religious leaders and early scholars to help students memorize oral
or written texts” (p. 1). Again he says: “The climactic form aided
the prophets in clearly communicating the word of God to eager listeners who had
at best only limited access to the scriptural scrolls” (p. 83). This is
affirmed by Dorsey, who writes, “Texts were normally intended to be read
aloud, whether one was reading alone or to an audience. Accordingly, an ancient
writer was compelled to use structural signals that would be perceptible to the
listening audience. Signals were geared for the ear, not the eye, since visual
markers would be of little value to a listening audience.”4 This is also
true of the world out of which the Book of Mormon comes. It may strike a visually
oriented person as incredible that, for instance, the twelve Nephite disciples
could hear the Savior’s sermon at the temple and then the next day repeat
that sermon to the people, “nothing varying from the words which Jesus had
spoken” (3 Nephi 19:8).
While the typical reader of the Book of Mormon is worlds away from this oral-aural
mode of transmission and learning, new discoveries of the book could, I believe,
come from immersion in this type of environment. One could apply to the Book of
Mormon the point Victor M. Wilson makes in Divine Symmetries: “Memory is
everything in an orally grounded culture, . . . [a]nd memory is cultivated through
repetition.” Epic and other forms of ancient literature were created with
“balanced sections built around a center, both in the construction of its
parts and in the arrangement of the whole.”5 Discovery of these arrangements
is not easy, though. I can imagine they would best be found by listening repeatedly
to the Book of Mormon without the intrusion of artificial markers such as
punctuation—perhaps even of chapter designations (initially provided by
John H. Gilbert and later by Orson Pratt).
Pinnock’s four pages on irony point to another fruitful area that is open
to much more exploration and analysis.
What Pinnock says of poetry is true as well of narrative structures: It “relied
on repetitions . . . and parallelistic, symmetrical structures to achieve beauty,
emphasis, and clarity of understanding” (p. 49). Despite his repeated attempts
to deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon, Thomas shows the rich possibilities
of finding in the Book of Mormon type-scenes and formulaic phrases typical
of the Bible. As I do in my chapter on narratives in Feasting on the Word, Thomas
finds striking triple repetitions of events in the Book of Mormon. Both of us
show we learned from Robert Alter about parallel narrative scenes. This area of
interest, though, is far from being exhausted.
Pinnock calls attention to rhetorical figures and by doing so reminds us that
as with the Bible, the Book of Mormon is replete with figurative language. More
attention needs to be paid, for instance, to metaphors and personification like
the following: “The good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken
unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep” (Alma
5:60). Mercy “encircles them in the arms of safety” (Alma 34:16).
A number of the paired Bible–Book of Mormon examples in Pinnock’s
book call attention to the intertextuality between these two works of scripture.
Intertextuality within the Book of Mormon is also worthy of further study. Subsequent
Nephite prophets, we know, had access to teachings of the earlier Nephite prophets.
Alma’s sermons are indebted to Abinadi’s teachings, as are Amulek’s
to Alma’s. Steeped in their knowledge of Isaiah, Nephi and Jacob incorporated
some of his expressions into their own teachings. A striking instance of intertextuality
is the observation by Nephi the son of Helaman (or perhaps by Mormon) that the
church was broken up (around AD 30) “in all the land save it were among
a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the true faith; and they would
not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing
with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord” (3 Nephi 6:14).
Thus nearly six centuries later, it is acknowledged that Lehi’s desire for
his two oldest sons is fulfilled: that Laman might be righteous and that Lemuel
might be “like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping
the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 2:10).
A great help to discovering more of the literary aspects of the Book of Mormon
would be to understand the book both through prophecy and through being “taught
after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5; see 25:4). More
generally, it would help to become widely familiar with treatments of the Bible
as literature. Pinnock in his selected bibliography lists six books on this subject.
However, a subject search of the library at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill finds 142 books on the Bible as literature—most of which, presumably,
contain insights that could be applied to the Book of Mormon.
For a God-fearing person, an intellectual interest in the Book of Mormon as literature
is not sufficient. Elder Henry B. Eyring is properly aware of the limitations
of an exclusively literary approach: “So much of the Old Testament can be
taught as dramatic stories, fascinating customs, and beautiful literary forms.
But I will sense a greater happiness, a deeper appreciation when I study or teach
of times when prophets spoke of Jehovah and when the people received the words
and turned toward Him.”6 Yet properly recognized, the literary aspects of
the Book of Mormon are a means of conveying its spiritual purposes. Elder Neal
A. Maxwell refers to Mosiah 8:21 (“Yea, they are as a wild flock which fleeth”)
and speaks of “verses of scripture which teach while reflecting linguistic
loveliness.” Again, he refers to Mosiah 5:13 to show that “important
insights about discipleship are embodied and conveyed in beautiful but succinct
ways . . . in this inspired but haunting interrogatory which deals with the essence
of failed discipleship.”7 Pinnock refers to this linkage of aesthetics and
meaning: “The beauty and surprising presence of this Hebrew writing form
[chiasmus] in the Book of Mormon appeared to be an almost untapped reservoir of
testimony-strengthening material” (p. viii). Indeed, the literary beauty
of the Book of Mormon is an essential vehicle for presenting its God-directed
purposes—as I acknowledge with the subtitle of my book on the Book of Mormon
as literature: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon.
It needs to be emphasized, though, that being trained “after the manner
of the things of the Jews” is not sufficient. I expect that Laman and Lemuel
had this kind of training, yet they were like the people listening to Nephi the
son of Helaman: It was “not possible that they could disbelieve” (3
Nephi 7:18), so they became angry. Or one could simply disregard the divine element
in scriptures—as do so many scholars.
Finally, Pinnock’s book could contribute to a study of the Old Testament
in Gospel Doctrine classes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon
has nearly as many examples of literary forms from the Old Testament as it does
from the Book of Mormon, and recognizing these Hebraic forms can enhance study
of the Bible just as it can of the Book of Mormon.
- Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 15.
- David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 20.
- Donald W. Parry, The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted according to Parallelistic Patterns (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), preface.
- Dorsey, Literary Structure of the Old Testament, 16.
- Victor M. Wilson, Divine Symmetries: The Art of Biblical Rhetoric (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997), 16, 18.
- Henry B. Eyring, “Studying and Teaching the Old Testament,” Ensign
(January 2002): 34.
- Neal A. Maxwell, The Promise of Discipleship (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2001), 4.